By Louise Oakley
Hotelier Middle East gets up close and personal with Selim El Zyr, the respected president and CEO of Rotana Hotels, and finds out that it usually pays to go with your gut feeling.
What was your first job in the hospitality industry?
The first job I got was at the Waldorf, which was at that time
run by Hilton. It was a big name. For a young man who had just graduated, it was
important as Hilton was one of the largest companies in the business. There are
people who want to work in fast food (which is great), but there are also people
who strive for quality, to be in an environment of luxury, to meet socialites and
movie stars. At that time, I considered myself lucky to be hired by Hilton and posted
in New York.
So I started my career with the Hilton group in a laborious kitchen
job that got me little appreciation but taught me much. I was assistant chief steward
and two months later I was promoted to chief steward.
I always believe that if you have the will and the education,
you can start at any level. The first job you take usually falls far below your
expectations. It happens in every field. You think you are ready to take on big
positions. But in reality you are not equipped in terms of experience and maturity.
My passion for the hospitality industry was beyond belief. I cherished being of
service to people and believed that quality always paid off.
How did you work your way up through the ranks?
My 12 year assignment with the multinational Hilton group took
me to Germany, Spain, Egypt,
Canada, the States, Kuwait and the UAE.
I returned to the Middle East in 1973 and became
general manager, at the age of 28, of the Hilton Abu Dhabi, becoming the youngest
GM of any Hilton property.
When I was with Hilton I travelled a lot (at the time, eight
or 10 business trips a year). I said to myself, if I was working so hard for others,
I should think of doing this for myself. It took me five or six years after the
germination of that initial idea. I had to wait for the right opportunity. It’s
sometimes circumstances that usher in such changes.
I am very competitive by nature and I always wanted to go far.
Even as a child I had a burning ambition and drive to be the best at whatever I
did. When I eventually left the hotel chain, I was the regional director
before joining the Abu Dhabi National Hotels Company, then turning entrepreneur
and co-founding Rotana in 1993 along with my business partner and longtime friend
Nasser Al Nowais.
When you helped found Rotana, what was your aim?
My relationship with Nasser
was based on trust. We happen to share the same values: a respect for people and
a passion to serve. In 1992, I approached Nasser
with the idea of starting our own management company. We quickly formed a strong
bond and shared a dream of a regional hospitality group capable of developing best-of-breed
hotels to international standards. I wasn’t afraid of taking the plunge and I had
a strong hunch, a gut feel that it would take off.
We recognised the need to develop a regional hotel management
company that would focus on the Middle East and
the region as a whole. We believed in the future of the Middle
East region and set out to launch Rotana with a modest capital and
a dream to become a leading hotel company. Within a relatively short period of time
(just 19 years), Rotana has established itself as a ‘leader’ in the service industry
within our region.
The biggest challenge for me when we opened our first hotel,
the Beach Rotana in Abu Dhabi,
was to show the world that we could make it successful. I had to plan and work hard
in order to make a difference. We were up against hotels that had been in the city
for over 20 years. They had the maturity, the experience and the people.
But thanks to a lot of teamwork, we made it. In less than one
year after the opening, we were leaders in occupancy. We had restaurants that were
full every night. People were surprised to see the standards come up and the name
When other owners saw what we had done, they were encouraged.
Mr. Nasser Al Nowais’ inputs were essential here: because of his contacts and because
he is a trustworthy individual.
Did you ever expect that the company would grow to this size?
Ours has been an organic growth. There was ambition. From the
beginning, we aimed at building 20-25 hotels. When you look at what is happening
in the world today, a 100-hotel company is attainable. It was a dream, perhaps,
when we first started our business. Given our size and capabilities today, Rotana
will have 100 hotels very soon.
Nineteen years ago, we were filled with confidence, yet, we could
never have imagined the speed at which our hopes, dreams and aspirations would be
realised. From a mere 400 employees in 1993, we have more than 10,150 employees
today — and by 2014 our family will grow to around 17,000.
Rotana’s success is based on a key element, the human factor
— this coupled with years of dedication and hard work, while knowing who we are
and what we are capable of, is what has made us who we are.
Our product offering is exceptionally strong. Our properties
are in the right locations and our level of service much sought after. We have gradually
reached the hearts of our customers and the desired market recognition and our repeat
guests are major proof of that.
What do you think are the three key factors that have been pivotal
to Rotana’s success?
The ‘success spice’ for Rotana was a combination of strategic
planning and sound financial control, sophisticated human resources capabilities
as well as reliable technical service support.
The formula was flavoured with innovative food and beverage management
and aggressive sales and marketing, which is characteristic of the region. Rotana
has gone off the normal beaten path and reaped rich dividends.
What is your vision for the future growth of Rotana?
Our vision is to be the leading and most dynamic hospitality
management company in the Middle East and Africa
operating a comprehensive range of products and brands that aim to meet all the
requirements of our guests.
Development of the brand is rigorously planned and meticulously
managed across all operations — simultaneously evoking confidence and trust among
property owners, and creating satisfying experiences for corporate and leisure travellers.
As a company, we will pursue new openings and opportunities,
fresh challenges, and partners who seek the same goals and share the same aspirations.
We are extremely cautious on expanding strategically and efficiently.
For the next four years, Rotana will open 10 hotels per year.
The plan is under full sail. The strategy is there. The execution and know-how are
there. The objective is clear. We are positive that as long as we are able
to manage growth in an efficient way, then there is the scope to take up further
properties. We are managing an ambitious expansion that will see our portfolio of
operational properties increase from two in 1993 to more than 70 by 2012.
Rotana has launched several new brands in recent years — could
there still be more?
Back in 2006, and given the untapped opportunities to cater to
budget conscious executive travellers across the region, we launched Centro Hotels
by Rotana, which is a lifestyle brand that redefines the conventional concept of
economical comfort, delivering superior accommodation at an affordable price.
Centro came at a time that ideally positioned it for continuous
long-term development, strong operating performance and sustainable growth well
in to the future.
In 2008 and following 15 successful years of operation and as
a result of the company’s growth, we have embarked back in to a brand restructuring
which was essential to further expand our portfolio and to ensure differentiation
between the various products.
The diversity of our brands has provided a comprehensive range
of products that aim to meet all the requirements of our customers. The development
of the brand has built on the existing equity of Rotana whilst setting in place
the necessary tools with which to facilitate the company’s rapid growth.
Depending on our growth, the requirement of the brand and markets
we are in, we will continue developing our brand structure.
Do you have plans to take Rotana outside of the MENA region?
We have dropped the word “North” as we signed management agreements
in Africa, which will be announced in due course.
At this stage, the Middle East and Africa is the
focus, but, never say never!